At high school in Indiana, my coolest friend was into hardcore. By the time we graduated, he’d managed to join a well-known local screamo band (as their Moog player, no less) and had formed two of his own grindcore bands as a bassist. At the time, I was just beginning my journey from classic rock and oldies to the bold new sounds of the day. When my friend played his Racebannon, Melt-Banana, and Pig Destroyer records for me, I wondered — as we all did once — “How is this enjoyable? What’s the point?” My friend’s answer was simple: “When I listen to this,” he said, “I can throw someone through a window.”
This sentiment informed my feeling about hardcore for a long time — even after I grew to love bands like Racebannon. Of course, hardcore is far from the only genre to lack a melodic focus, and plenty of it does have melody. But for purists — and for most of the bands I grew up with in Indiana’s nascent screamo/grindcore/powerviolence scene — the point is energy, not melody. Bands are graded on ferocity, passion, and volume. While crossover acts are everywhere, straight-ahead hardcore punk music remains the domain of true believers.
When Toronto’s Fucked Up erupted into the big-time with 2006’s Hidden World, their twist seemed relatively simple: basic hardcore song structures, just longer and with some strings thrown in. While the record was solid, I was a bit surprised at all the raves. The band wasn’t doing anything particularly new. To me, the orchestral details around the edges of Hidden World — and sophomore record The Chemistry of Common Life — were just that: details. At their core, Fucked Up’s records were well-crafted hardcore punk with high-concept lyrics and nice cover art. What’s more, in concert the band appears to be made up of one hardcore kid and five librarians.
With their newest work, David Comes to Life, my puzzlement has become full-fledged bewilderment. A 78-minute, 18-song, four-“act” concept album, David Comes to Life is an overproduced mess.
The problems start from the very beginning. For the third straight time, Fucked Up start the record with a feint — the Deerhunter-aping “Let Her Rest,” three minutes of ambient sounds. This sort of thing telegraphs it loud and clear: this band has no interest in concision. It gets worse. “Queen of Hearts” is so overproduced that singer Damian Abraham can barely make himself heard over the din. For hardcore bands, this isn’t always a bad thing — the urgency of a singer trying to scream over his band can be riveting. Here, the problem is simply overproduction, a cluttered mix of cheesy guitar lines left and right.
“Queen of Hearts” is the worst offender, but this same bloat shows up throughout the record and brings down many of its best tunes. “Truth I Know” and “Ship of Fools” are anthemic, punchy rock songs, but the stadium-sized production makes the band feel a mile away. “The Other Shoe” could be a better-than-average Sleigh Bells track, but the song simply takes too long to get started and never revs up. If you’ve ever listened to Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come, you know that hardcore can be artsy-fartsy and still sound dangerous. There’s concept here, but no danger. It makes me fantasize about what this record would sound like stripped down to its bones. Fucked Up Unplugged, perhaps.
After listening to David Comes to Life from start to finish a few times, I’ve begun to feel bad for Damian Abraham. He’s a capable frontman, and his antics and passion in concert rescue the band from complete wallflowerdom. Somewhere along the way, however, he’s been steered wrong. No matter how loud he yells, the music neuters him. Between the overlong, overstuffed songs and arrangements, ridiculous album concept and lyrical conceit, there’s no room left for the vicious, hurtling energy that first impressed me on Hidden World’s best songs. It’s the same energy that inspires kids to throw each other through windows, and without that energy, there’s not much left.